Co-authored by Renae Hintze
It’s a beautiful sunny day, you had a big delicious breakfast, and you show up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for your first class of the day. Just as you’re getting comfortable in your chair, your teacher hits you with it:
A 5-page, size 12 font research paper… due in 2 weeks.
The sky goes black, your breakfast turns to a brick in your stomach. A research paper? FIVE pages long? Why???
Maybe I’m being a little over-dramatic here. But not all of us are born gifted writers. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that most of us struggle a little or a lot with writing a research paper.
But fear not!! I can help you through it. If you follow these 11 steps I promise you will write a better essay, faster.
1. Start early
We all do it. We wait until the LAST day to start an assignment, and then something goes wrong at the LAST minute, and Woops! We get a bad grade.
ALWAYS start your essays early. This is what I recommend. Especially since writing a research paper requires more effort than a regular paper might.
I have a 3-week timeline you can follow when writing a research paper. YES, 3 weeks!! It may sound like waaay too early to start, but it gives you enough time to:
- Outline and write your paper
- Check for errors
- Get pointers from your teacher on what to improve
All of this = a better grade on your assignment. You’re already going through all the effort — why not be positive that you’ll get the best results??
2. Read the Guidelines
Ever taken a shirt out of the dryer to find it has shrunk 10 sizes too small?
It’s because the shirt probably wasn’t meant to go in the dryer, and if you had read the tag, you’d have saved yourself one whole article of clothing!
Before you even START on writing a research paper, READ THE GUIDELINES.
- What is your teacher looking for in your essay?
- Are there any specific things you need to include?
This way, you don’t have to finish your essay only to find that it needs to be re-done!
3. Brainstorm research paper topics
Sometimes we’re assigned essays where we know exactly what we want to write about before we start.
Write an essay on my favorite place to travel?? I know where I’M going to choose!
But there are probably more times where we DON’T know exactly what we want to write about, and we may even experience writer’s block.
To overcome that writer’s block, or simply avoid it happening in the first place, we can use a skill called mind-mapping (or brainstorming) to come up with a topic that is relevant and that we’re interested in writing about!
Here’s an example of a mind-map I just did for Influential People!
By writing whatever came to my mind and connecting those thoughts, I was able to come up with quite a few influential people to write about — I could come up with EVEN MORE if I kept writing!!
See here I can choose to write about Hillary Clinton and how she may have an influence on women and women’s rights in society.
Following this method, you can determine your own research paper topics to write about in a way that’s quick and painless.
4. Write out your questions
To get the BEST research, you have to ask questions. Questions on questions on questions. The idea is that you get to the root of whatever you are talking about so you can write a quality essay on it.
Let’s say you have the question: “How do I write a research paper?”
Can you answer this without more information?
Not so easy, right? That’s because when you “write a research paper”, you do a lot of smaller things that ADD UP to “writing a research paper”.
Break your questions down. Ask until you can’t ask anymore, or until it’s no longer relevant to your topic. This is how you can achieve quality research.
5. Do the research
It IS a research paper, after all. But you don’t want to just type all your questions into Google and pick the first source you see. Not every piece of information on the internet is true, or accurate.
Here’s a way you can easily check your sources for credibility: Look for the who, what, and when.
- Who is the author of the source?
- What are they known for?
- Do they have a background in the subject they wrote about?
- Does the author reference other sources?
- Are those sources credible too?
- What does the “Main” or “Home” page of a website look like?
- Is it professional looking?
- Is there an organization sponsoring the information, and do they seem legitimate
- Do they specialize in the subject?
- When was the source generated — today, last week, a month, a year ago?
- Has there been new or additional information provided since this information was published?
Double-check all your sources this way. Because this is a research paper, your writing is meaningless without other sources to back it up.
Keep track of your credible sources!
When you find useful information from a credible source, DON’T LET IT GO. You need to save the original place you found that information from so that you can cite it in your essay, and later on in the bibliography.
You don’t want to have to go back later and dig up the information a second time just to list the source you got it from!
To help with this, you may be familiar with the option to “Bookmark” your pages online — do this for online sources.
There IS another tool you can use to keep track of your sources. It’s called Diigo, and it’s what we use at Student-Tutor to build an online database of valuable educational resources!
You can create a Diigo account and one free group for your links. Check out this video on how to use Diigo to save all your sources in one convenient location.
Now, of course there are other ways besides the Internet to get information, and there’s nothing wrong with cracking open a well-written book to enrich your essay’s content!
Ways to get information when writing a research paper
- The Internet
6. Create a Thesis Statement
How to write a thesis statement is something that a lot of people overlook. That’s a mistake.
The thesis statement is part of your research paper outline but deserves its own step. That’s because the thesis statement is SUPER important! It is what sets the stage for the entire essay.
How do you write a thesis statement?
Here’s a color-coded example:
7. Create an outline
Once you have constructed your thesis, the rest of the outline is pretty simple. It should mimic the structure of your thesis!
Here’s a color-coded research paper outline you can follow:
8. Write your research paper
Here it is — the dreaded writing. But see how far we’ve already come?
We already know what we’re going to write about, and where we’re going to write it. That’s a lot easier than taking a pen straight to your paper and hoping for some magical, monk-like inspiration to come, am I right?
As you write, be sure to pin-point the places where you are inserting sources. I’ll talk about in-text citations in just a moment!
Here are some basic tips for writing your essay from International Student:
- Generally, don’t use “I/My” unless it’s a personal narrative
- Use specific examples to support your statements
- Vary your language — don’t use the same adjective 5 times in a row
9. Cite your sources
This goes along with the second step — make sure to check your essay guidelines and find out BEFOREHAND what kind of citation style your teacher wants you to use.
Like I promised earlier, Purdue University has a great article that provides instructions on and examples on how to cite different types of sources WITHIN your text. Reference this when you’re not sure what to do.
As a general rule of thumb, in-text citations usually go AFTER the sentence drawing from the source, but BEFORE the period of that sentence, in parentheses. If more than one sentence is referencing the same source, try to place it at the last of those sentences.
However, no matter what you cite INSIDE your writing, all the sources you use for the paper need to be included in your bibliography.
This goes on a separate page, after your main essay and may be titled “Works Cited” or “Bibliography”. (Make sure to check the guidelines, and ask your teacher!)
For this, I’m going to introduce you to an awesome, totally free citation tool called EasyBib.
Important Tip: Make sure that when you use EasyBib, you are filling in a template provided by EasyBib and NOT asking EasyBib to pull information directly from the source. EasyBib can’t always find information that is there, and your citation will be incomplete without it!
By selecting “Manual Cite”, EasyBib will provide you with a template for filling in the necessary information to create your citation.
You can then ask EasyBib to generate the source in the citation format you’ve selected. Copy and paste that source into your bibliography — easy!
10. Read your essay
Why do I need to read my essay if I wrote it?
You’d be surprised what you’ll catch the second, third, and bazillionth time around reading your own writing! Not that you have to read THIS a bazillion times… just once or twice over will do.
I recommend that you read your essay once-through, and the second time read it aloud. Reading your essay aloud reinforces your words and makes it easier to recognize when something is phrased strangely, or if you are using a word too often.
11. Have someone else read your essay
Lastly it is always important that someone else besides you read your essay before you submit it.
Find a professional who can give you constructive feedback on how to improve your essay — this may be a tutor or a teacher. It can also be someone who specializes in the subject you are writing about.
The absolute BEST person to review your essay would be the teacher that assigned it to you.
And yes, many teachers WILL read the essay they assigned before it is due and give you pointers on how to make it better. They want you to succeed and they’re the ones grading it — I think it’s safe to say they know what they’re talking about!
For most of us, writing a research paper is no walk in the park. Unfortunately, it’s important that you know how to do it!
Let’s review the steps to make this process as PAINLESS as possible:
- Start early — 3 weeks in advance!
- Read the guidelines
- Mind map/Brainstorm research paper topics
- Write out your questions
- Do the research (Remember to keep track of your sources!)
- Create a Thesis Statement
- Create an outline
- Write your essay
- Cite your sources (In-text and in your bibliography)
- Read your essay (twice and once aloud!)
- Have someone ELSE read your essay — try your teacher first.
Do you have experience writing a research paper? What process did you use, and was it effective? Tell us about it in the comments below!
Hello! My name is Todd. I help students eliminate academic stress, boost confidence, and reach their wildest dreams through college tips and digital age knowledge they are not teaching in school. I am a former tutor for seven years, $85,000 scholarship recipient, Huffington Post contributor, lead SAT & ACT course developer, and have worked with thousands of students and parents to ensure a brighter future for the next generation. Currently, I am traveling across America delivering presentations, rock climbing, adventuring, and helping inspire the leaders of tomorrow. Let's become friends! Follow my journey via my YouTube Vlog for inspirational value added tips!
Empowering Academic, College, and Career Success
A Five-Component Plan for Writing a Research Paper
Suggestions for how to break down a research paper assignment into five components, giving five different deadlines, and not waiting to last minute to finish the paper.
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
Let's say your instructor has assigned you to write a research paper and specified that the paper must be a rhetorical argument that supports a thesis you've developed. You are not merely summarizing information but taking a position and defending it with the best evidence you can find in the literature. You will need to analyze and synthesize. Your teacher may assign the paper over a long period, such as the full semester, with milestone assignments along the way.
But even if these milestones are not assigned, consider reaching the milestones anyway. You will find that you will stay on track with the assignment, thus avoiding panic the week -- or day -- before the paper's due. You can also expect your paper to be much more organized and coherent using this component plan than if you didn't use it.
This article details the five components.
Let's say semesters at your school are 16 weeks. Consider following this plan for your paper, and if your semesters are longer or shorter, adapt the plan accordingly.
1. Topic and abstract: Assuming your topic isn't assigned, plan to develop your topic for your research paper by the fifth week of class and then write an abstract. In part, this exercise is to help you get an early start on your paper. Your abstract should capture the essence of the question, problem, or rhetorical argument you wish to pursue in your paper. The abstract can range anywhere from a long paragraph to a page, double-spaced. A length of 200 words is a good goal to shoot for. Check abstracts in the library for a general feel for the style of an abstract. See our article, How to Write an Abstract, for guidelines and samples. Do not use first person for your abstract. A key phrase should be: "This paper will . . ." (instead of "I will. . ."). Writing an abstract will help crystallize your topic for you and keep you on track in developing the question, problem, or rhetorical argument you plan to pursue in your paper
2. Outline: Writing an outline that is comprehensive enough to give a good sense of how your paper will be organized and what it will say will be an enormous boost for to the logical flow and organization of your paper. Poorly organized papers are the No. 1 student writing peeve among professors, but outlining can help you produce an easy-to-follow paper. See our article, The Power of Outlining When Writing College Papers. Complete your outline by the seventh week of class.
3. Preliminary Bibliography: Preparing a preliminary bibliography ensures that you have gathered your research in a timely manner, and it also will give you a huge head start toward your final paper -- because bibliographies are extremely time-consuming to compile and format. Quantity of sources is not as important as quality and variety. Your bibliography should ideally include more than just books. Consider also consulting academic journals, mass-market and specialty periodicals, and the Internet. Consider also doing original research, such as interviewing individuals or conducting a survey. Try to use the most current sources. A good rule of thumb is to stick to sources that are not more than 10 years old. Of course, many exceptions can be made to this rule, especially if the most important works in a field are more than 10 years old. But do try for current works wherever possible. Don't fall into the trap that a former student did. Writing about "the technology office," he chose sources (all books) that were at least 10 years old, yet he kept talking about "the office of tomorrow." The office of tomorrow from a 1998 source is probably not even the office of today, but the office of yesterday. Be sure you know what citation and bibliographic style your instructor wants you to use. Plan to have your preliminary bibliography prepared by the 11th week of class.
More research guidelines:
- Insert quotations, cite authors that bolster your thesis, and develop a bibliography of healthy size and variety.
- Use the research you've uncovered in a way that logically supports your thesis.
- Check in with your instructor as you're researching and writing your paper if you have questions about whether the research seems adequate.
- Try this guideline: Every paragraph except the introduction and conclusion ought to have a reference to the primary or secondary source material used for your paper. Without a reference to a source in the paragraph, you may not have provided the necessary evidence to demonstrate your point.
Citing your sources within the text and avoiding plagiarism:
- If your assignment doesn't make it clear, ask your instructor which citation style you should use.
- Understand that when you use ideas, facts, and opinions that are not your own -- even when you don't use the author's exact words -- you must give appropriate credit to the author as you incorporate his or her ideas into your paper. If you don't do so, you're committing plagiarism, one of the most serious offenses in academe.
- It's better, when in doubt, to over-cite than under-cite. At least one citation per paragraph is not unreasonable.
Resist the temptation to lift any part of your paper wholesale from the web. One former student carefully cited and paraphrased everything, but I still gave him a low grade because he did almost no writing of his own and took his whole paper from one web source. His effort was just so much less than most of his classmates. When mediocre students turn in suspiciously impressive papers, I often suspect that they were purchased from term-paper mills, written by someone else, or lifted from the Internet. I usually find out. One former student credited some material to web sites, but lifted other material wholesale and word-for-word from a web site without crediting it. I gave him a zero for this 150-point paper. By university policy, I had the right to fail him for the class.
Consider the objectivity of your sources. Another former student wrote about communication at Anheuser-Busch, especially the company's mission statement. A lot of it sounded suspiciously like ad or PR copy, so I went to the Website, and sure enough, he had lifted chunks of it from there. He had credited it, but he had also bought into it, hook, line and sinker, as though Anheuser-Busch would be an objective resource on Anheuser-Busch. He also used no other sources that might have balanced the beer company's obviously biased view.
4. First Draft: Have a first draft ready by week 14 of the semester. (Imagine the luxury of having your paper virtually completed two full weeks before it's due and not having to scramble at the last minute.) The first draft of your paper should be fairly close to what you expect to turn in for your final paper and should include your bibliography. At the first-draft stage, you can begin a process of reading over the paper, editing it, and revising it. You could also ask others to read and critique it. Most importantly, you can ask your instructor to read it and provide feedback. Not all will agree to do so, but many will recognize that you are striving to produce the best possible paper and will be happily provide input. If you have a teaching assistant for your class, that person would also be a good audience for your draft. Based on reader feedback, you will know whether you need to do more research, major reorganization, and/or significant rewriting.
5. Final Paper: The final paper should incorporate revisions (especially based on instructor or teaching-assistant comments on draft). The final paper should be ready the last week of the semester. Again, adjust the dates in this article according to your own school's calendar and your assignment's due dates.
Final Thoughts On Using This Research Paper Plan
Is it crazy to essentially turn one assignment into five components? Not if you want to attain an excellent grade on your paper. Even if your instructor does not assign the interim steps described here, you will.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key academic terms by going to our College Success Glossary.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for EmpoweringSites.com, including MyCollegeSuccessStory.com. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). She curates, crafts, and delivers compelling content online, in print, on stage, and in the classroom. Visit her personal Website KatharineHansenPhD.com or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)astoriedcareer.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.